Monday, July 10, 2006

Let's Talk About the Money

The MLU debate on RSD has fractured into many different threads. There are discussions about specific rules, perspectives from players, concern from some, hard selling from others, etc. There is very little discussion, though, about what is driving the vision of MLU and, in the end, what will be considered an objective measure of its vision and success. This subject is lurking in the shadows, assumed by some to be the reward for the vision of this, potential, next step, and ignored by others, who, like high school students in health class, really don't want to talk about how to make babies. This subject is, of course, money.

There is no need to waste time placing perceived blame for the disconnect that has characterized the discussion on RSD. The result, though, is a polarized discussion in which the parties are talking about two distinct set of concerns. My opinion is that the conversation that MLU wants to have is not "Is the 2-point line good for Ultimate?", it is "Does the 2-point line create more excitement for the spectator? (and then, it follows, create the willingness on the spectators part to pay for witnessing said excitement)." While it is noble that folks are concerned for the integrity of Ultimate and I am glad to see folks write about their concerns, it is pretty obvious that MLU does not care about, nor wishes to discuss, the basic values of the sport as defined by the Spirit of the Game, etc. Toad's response to Ben Wiggin's comment that Ultimate and MLU are two different sports? MLU "puts the 'real sport' feel into ultimate". Ian said that "'Fairness' from the players perspective is obviously very important, but not more important than trying to make ultimate a better SHOW". I personally do not have a problem with MLU's lack of concern for the integrity of Ultimate as defined by the 10th edition when I am able, instead, to view MLU as a business proposition. Certainly, I don't love having to chew on Toad's disrespect every morning (he is certainly not alone in dishing this out), but as I have said before, one should expect that kind of tone when one dips their toe into the RSD waters.

So, if the MLU conversation on RSD is not about what is best for Ultimate, what are we talking about? Well, I think we are discussing MLU's business plan, but we are putting the cart before the horse in the sense that we are discussing the specifics of the plan before agreeing upon the premise that generated the plan. MLU has not publicly offered us their business plan, nor are they required to do so, but as they have been willing to engage in a discussion on RSD, there have been some quotes that do illuminate their priorities and assumptions. I think a pretty good quote is one from Ian, "To take ultimate to the prime time level that it could be at (someday), we need to start seriously reaching, attracting, and pleasing larger numbers of spectators. Spectators want to believe they are watching a well-officiated game". Toad has alluded to doing some "sports research" that has apparently informed MLU's business plan. Again, the concern is not whether refs, for example, are good for Ultimate. MLU has concluded, due to, it sounds like, personal experience and some research, that refs are "necessary" in order to make Ultimate attractive enough to entice spectators to part with their dollars. So, while the conclusion that Ultimate needs to be changed (in this case via the MLU rule set) in order to make money is an interesting possible discussion, MLU has already arrived at this conclusion, have built a business model around this conclusion, and, as any belief system cannot be refuted, this conclusion (read: business plan) will be validated (or invalidated) not by theory, but by revenue (or lack thereof).

The folks at MLU have been pretty clear about this conclusion and the resulting business plan, but I guess one could say they are guilty of not tattooing it on our foreheads so we can be reminded every morning of what exactly their priority is. I won't give lengthy quotes, but Toad and Ian have said over and over that they want to make MLU a "show", that they want to "maximize the entertainment value", and that they will do whatever it takes to "get spectators into the seats". In short, they want to make money.

So is all the froth on RSD due to some deep-seeded discomfort we have with folks making money off the sport? I don't think so. No one has a problem with VC, Gaia, or Ultivillage developing business models that profit off of Ultimate. In this day and age, any news is good publicity, so perhaps MLU has adopted a publicity strategy in the form of a caustic tone in order to maintain visibility, and, as an additional payoff, they get free market research from the resulting RSD firestorm and rule ideas.

While I don't have any specific issue with MLU's plan to derive profit from Ultimate, I would say that I am highly suspicious of "creating a show", "maximizing the entertainment value" and "improving the marketability" as motivations as they do not represent, for me, values that I am personally concerned with, but, being the contrarian that I am, that kind of language will always raise a red flag for me. I have found, when attending any spectacle like a sporting event, that I am negatively distracted by The Show's attempt to create excitement, and I find such attempts, frankly, a bit insulting. However, my personal feelings about being catered to are not the topic at hand and perhaps only serve to marginalize myself as a potential demographic sector.

While I may be suspicious, I don't think there is any reason to feel threatened by MLU's desire to experiment with marketing, exposure, and any pay out that might result. Ian said, on Thursday, in a reasonable and calm tone that MLU "seeks to be an option and will never be a replacement" for the UPA. On the other side, the attraction of the ethical challenge that is SOTG and the fact that SOTG could actually be a differentiating asset rang out clearly in my "MLU: Players Perspectives" post, and these were voiced by top-level, elite players. So, perhaps we have reached detente, and maybe the tone of RSD is correct, "Its all good"....even if we are talking about money.


Sideline Engineer said...

There's a difference between making money by doing things for the players (VC, Gaia) and making money by what the players do (MLU). The difference is that the first case doesn't incent paying the players, while the second case does. Once you pay players, you need refs and you lose SOTG.

Ultivillage is, interestingly, in both categories. Right now, there are very few fans who don't play Ultimate, so Ultivillage does things for players. Once there's a non-playing fan base, Ultivillage will have more paying customers who will want the highest possible level of play (recall debates about why there are more open clips than women's or co-ed) and Ultivillage will want paid players.

gcooke said...


Interesting comments. I think you do bring up a distinction in those models.

I think the points you bring up start to give some sense of how complex things will become when we add dollars to the recipe.


Billy Berrou said...

There isn't going to be a non-player fan base. Ultimate is boring, refs or no refs.

gcooke said...

Thanks for the comments.

I guess you shouldn't be watching Ultimate.

I usually don't assume that my opinions, like what I find enjoyable, are the same as other people's opinions.

Jeters said...

I find this question fascinating, and here in TO we've been debating the topic. I added two posts and plan one one more on similar comments (

Interesting read.

gcooke said...

Thanks, Jeters. I will check out your posts.